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Why are sea levels rising, and what can be done to stem the tide?

06 February 2019

This certainly won’t be a fun afternoon in the Energy Academy. The first event hosted by the Global Centre on Adaptation revolves around ‘Why are sea levels rising and what can be done to stem the tide?’ In a short space of time, researchers Dewi Le Bars (KNMI: Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) and Richard Bintanja (UG) will discuss several models that predict the future of sea levels, the earth’s Poles and global warming. Although some are more complicated than others, none of them paint a rosy picture of the future.

Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Centre on Adaptation, will begin the afternoon by presenting the goals of the GCA and the Global Commission on Adaptation, which supports the GCA. The Centre works alongside experts from around the world, showing countries how best to tackle climate change and speed up climate adaptation.

Dewi Le Bars

Dewi Le Bars Dewi Le Bars is the afternoon’s first guest speaker. One of the highlights of Le Bars’ presentation is the revelation that global sea levels rose faster in the twentieth century than in any of the previous 30 centuries. Melting ice caps have contributed to the sharp rise in sea levels over the past 25 years. This is occurring in Greenland, for example, where the ice is melting from above. In Antarctica, which almost entirely consists of sea ice, the ice is melting from underneath due to the effect of the ocean.

Le Bars also demonstrates that sea levels are not rising at the same pace everywhere in the world. If Greenland were to melt, for example, the sea level would rise by an average of one metre. But this does not mean that the all the world’s water – from Amsterdam to Jakarta – would rise by one metre. As the ice melts, Greenland loses mass and attracts less water, so the sea level in the Northern Hemisphere will be lower than that in the Southern Hemisphere. Rising sea levels are not therefore a homogeneous phenomenon that affects the entire world in the same way.

Richard Bintanja

In his presentation, Richard Bintanja, Professor of Climate and Environmental Change at the UG, makes no bones about the current condition of the North Pole. Four years ago, he joined an expedition to Spitsbergen. They sailed through a fjord, and the captain showed Bintanja the map: according to the map, they were actually sailing through a glacier. The map was only twenty years old but in those twenty years, most of the glacier had melted. The question in Bintanja’s mind is largely rhetorical: ‘Are we heading towards a new Arctic?’                                       

He has no doubt about what will happen: the scenario is either very frightening or quite frightening. As ice melts, it has a self-reinforcing effect. The surface becomes darker, so the ice absorbs more sunlight and melts even faster. In addition, rainfall increases. The impact is three-fold. First, there is a physical impact. Glaciers melt, sea levels rise and permafrost melts, resulting in more greenhouse gases and more extreme weather conditions.

Secondly, there’s an ecological impact: the entire marine ecosystem changes. More birds will be able to inhabit the North Pole and animals from warmer climates will survive there too. Thirdly, there is the impact on society. As the sea ice melts, fishing in the North Pole will become more viable and we will be able to drill for oil. The route could also be used for shipping or tourism.

When asked about the relationship between the researchers and the Global Centre on Adaptation, Bintanja answers that although he doesn’t specialize in adaptation, he considers it his duty to warn people and make them aware of the speed and extent of the current problem. Visitors to the afternoon at the Energy Academy won’t be able to say that they haven’t been warned.

Last modified:08 February 2019 09.22 a.m.
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